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October 5, 2013

RONN MOTT: Remembering the WTHI ‘Air Force’

A friend and former media associate, Paul Randall Dickerson, had recently retired from the Associated Press and was back on home turf. A few of us who had worked with Randall decided to get together over dinner with him while he was here.  

Randall (I don’t believe we ever called him Paul) was in town for a high school reunion. Like many youngsters of the 1960s, he was all set to go to his local high school, in this case Glenn, and he found himself thrust into Terre Haute’s largest school by enrollment. That was Gerstmeyer High School. I do believe he would have come back for our gathering because in all of our careers in radio this was one of the happiest times most of us spent.

It was the WTHI Air Force. There wasn’t much there in the way of recognition. In fact, in that year of ’64 when I went to cash my paycheck at one of the local banks, the young woman teller asked me what I did at the TV station. I said I was in radio. She said she didn’t know they had a radio station. I realized there was work to be done.

The management group, three vice presidents, sales, engineering and programming, didn’t care what we did providing it was in decent taste. They were very much concerned about how much money they were making in TV. Radio, to most of them, was just an after-thought.

All of the people at dinner that night had been hired by me to make the radio station a well-listened to property. And the group that was gathered was as diverse as the ideas and initiatives they brought to the task at hand. Julie White, who recently retired from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, had majored in English in school and soon put her skills to work at producing award-winning commercials and promotional ideas. Brian Hayden, B.T. on the radio, and currently an instructor at Indiana State, was one of the youngest and brought energy and ideas to the task. P.R.D. put his tremendous bass voice into a great midday program and writing and editing skills he would use later on.

We mused about our “Go fly a kite day.” Two of those were accomplished … two separate years before urban sprawl made it tough to do. We hired and fired the night-time janitor who was a character on the Lauren Owens Show at night, and we shifted afternoon drive between John Coleman and Andy Bickel.

Left to our own recognizance, we soared in listenership and kept it going for about four years. Four years in radio in the 1960s was practically a lifetime.

We ate our meal and re-lived old times. And, according to our calculations, we’ll soon be coming upon our 50th anniversary of the WTHI Air Force. We discussed the idea of a reunion. If we can pull that off, it should be a blast.

The main thrust of the company was its television station. At the time, one of the best per capita stations in the nation. So, we radio people were left to think outside the box from our different format to our airplanes we drove in homecoming parades at Indiana State. We were thinking outside the box long before that term was ever in common usage. The old song, “Seems Like Old Times,” gets sweeter as we get older.

Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality in Terre Haute, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on Tribstar.com, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.

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